pedestrianism and the fuzzy category of running

As an arm-chair enthusiast trailrunner (ace for you), who thus spends quite some time in the world of running, I may be forgiven for the occasional spring cleaning tendency, the need to bring some conceptual order in all that I come across. There are normally triggers for this, as there are this time round. My imminent participation in the Mustang trail race, let to some thinking about the many variations on the multi-day stage-race format. Working on my scrapbook for the Mustang trail race made for a short period of more intense than usual immersion in reading about running, which made for a more acute than usual awareness of coming across more of the same. A reflection of the resulting feeling of tediousness made me think about that wonderful extreme version of urban trailing called parkour, which, in turn, made me think about the unwarranted unease I’ve always felt about the concept of urban trails. Time for another try at some signposting in this confusing running landscape.

As I’m using this armchair self-descriptor so often, let me share some sound from Thai pop band armchair:

I’ve had earlier spring cleaning bouts. First time I really started thinking about running was when I had registered for my first stage-race, the 2008 Annapurna Mandala Trail. That thinking was to deal with my anxieties about what to expect, am I up to this etc, and to have some coherent answer to questioning family and friends.  And once you’re in that thinking business, it never stops. During my time as a regular contributor to trailrunningnepal.org I made a first effort to sort through the assorted labels of pursuits that all seemed part of, or tangential to, the universe of trailrunning, that by now was my label for the kinda running I preferred. Mind you, I’ve been running more or less regularly since the late 1980s, and near all of the first 15 years was on unpaved trails (just because I lived next to them), so that was just the sort of running I grew up on. Don’t remember the label trailrunning in the air yet, and as running only slowly grew on me and became part of my narrative, I didn’t give it much thought. Maybe I should have left it at that…..

Let’s start with my conclusions:

  • Casting my net even wider than trails, made for even more fuzziness, but it increased my appreciation for the extent of boundary crossings that are around. My initial sentiment was rather one of the running world unnecessarily limiting itself for the sake of rules (understandable because necessary for competition, comparison between performances etc.). But, if one explores, creativity is not difficult to find. Obviously (watch it, intuition pump), the multi-dimensional property space of running allows for a sheer endless variety of combinations, and has very fuzzy edges on top of that, where running transmutes into other activities, or combines with them. Given this possible variety, the conclusion cannot be any other than that a surprising number of variations are being tried. Some only very rarely, but that doesn’t matter, it still means that some people, some place, go for the non-conventional.
  • The extent of boundary crossings within the conceptual universe of running (rather than at the fuzzy edges) makes it quite pointless to put much emphasis on nitpicking differences between kinds of foot motion. Therefore, the old, more encompassing label pedestrianism is the best term for the current conceptual space of ‘running’.

But first a thought-provoking reminder about the urge for standardization, the need for competition, that underlies all that setting of boundaries in sport, including running.

Back on topic: what I would have loved to present you with is an accessible ordered depiction of the multidimensional space of running. I’m not uncomfortable with data tables so would have been happy with a spreadsheet, but even better would have been a nicely designed mind map or other visualization. I might, some day in the future, come up with one (I intuit this is going to keep nagging me into devoting some serious time to it). But the sad fact for now is that I surrendered to the complexity, and gave up on accessibly classifying so many different properties. The problem is not so much the coming to grips with the properties themselves, they would be mind-mappable, but in matching clusters of properties with sorts of running. Obviously (but see above), the mainstream, association-governed disciplines can be sort of neatly distinguished, but that is an uninteresting exercise. When one takes the various properties at their face value and then looks at what’s out there, one quickly finds so much that doesn’t fit the officially recognized moulds, that the puzzle becomes intractable.

But let me not just state, but illustrate. So here’s my tentative list of relevant properties for the conceptual ‘running space’:

  • Running surface, with the major sub-divisions of trackroad and cross-country. But the last one includes quite different species, like unpaved roads, hiking trails/paths, single track, and (fell running) no-trail, cross-country in its literal sense. Also, the trail concept includes the urban version, footpaths/alleys, which are usually paved. And if one includes parkour, and there is no reason to exclude it, that adds an urban no-trail equivalent to the bag of possibilities. Properly organized road races temporarily ban other users; but for A to B road-ultra events that is normally not possible, so traffic is a potential separate property, but I refrain from listing it as such because I just cannot envision how this property could ever be used to creatively enrich the running space.
  • Distance.  Anything from 60 meters indoor-track to the Sri Chinmoy 3100 miler, and beyond. I’m not proposing any specific subdivision here. There’s the various governing bodies’ definitions, one could also take an energy systems perspective, but what I will do is add
  • Time as a separate property, with two subdivisions: continuous and stages. This matters because the importance of runners’ ability to perform under sleep deprivation conditions implies that a continuous format for the really long distances makes for a very different kind of event.
  • (Technical) trail difficulty.  Only really important for cross-country, but within that division crucial. I have no grading system to propose, and intuit it would not be easy, if not impossible, to come up with something uncontroversial. Maybe difficulty is not the right term, because it suggests an ordinal scale, while categorical/nominal may be the best way of thinking about it. How does one compare beach running with running bogs (popular in Ireland) or the cobbles/boulders of a dry river bed, or….you get my point. One particular kind of difficulty warrants separate mention:
  • Positive/negative altitude meters (ascent/descent). I club them together here, but one might also argue that each deserves separate mention because the mountain running world has uphill-only races (as well as uphill/downhill). Both total altitude meters up and down, and steepness (in combination with technical difficulty), especially/mainly downhill, are the difficulty aspects.
  • Absolute altitude reached is another difficulty aspect that needs separate mention. Again, I leave subdivision proposals to others, but it’s obvious that lots of positive/negative altitude meters is a totally different kinda difficulty than running to or at 4000 meters or higher. Well actually, for many of our species living at sea-level anything above 2000-2500 meters starts feeling more draining than usual.
  • Navigation. The fell running no-trail courses often require choosing the best line through the terrain, and then there is (foot) orienteering and rogaining, which require map and compass.
  • Weather. You may wonder about this one. But it comes with the decision to use properties like technical difficulty, pos/neg altitude meters and absolute altitude, rather than categorizing natural environments (mountains, etc.). The property is relevant from two angles: the weather you actually run in (temps, etc.) and the possibility of it suddenly turning bad – which in particular environments may mean a requirement to always take safety gear with you. Which is a bridge to the last property (see equipment).
  • Obstacles requiring jumping/scrambling/use of hands. Both in the mountains and in the urban area (parkour), running trails  fuses into scrambling up/down difficult sections, jumping across/down, etc. Parkour developed from (military) obstacle courses, which are also the basis for the tough mudder obstacle courses, and a Dutch version of adventure racing, survivalruns. And don’t forget the hurdles and steeplechase. I’ll get back to this property, which makes for one of the fuzziest edges of the running concept, but let’s first finish the list.
  • Individual/Team competition. Very different if it’s all about you, or a team effort that makes for success.
  • Level of support during an event. Often undervalued attribute. Running with gear on your back is a very different game from being serviced on route with whatever you need. Having to look after yourself in multi-day events very different from being looked after by volunteers, your own support crew, or logistic support staff of the event organizers. Again various levels of support could be defined, but that is not my purpose here. Safety back-ups could be lumped under this umbrella or listed separately.
  • Equipment. Some courses in some environments make it foolhardy not to take additional gear on your back. Then there is the kind of equipment that one can either allow or not, and given which, will make for a different event (although that is often not acknowledged by either organizers or participants), with special mention here of the ultra-light walking poles. Then there’s the equipment without which some terrain is just not doable: crampons for certain snow slopes, ice-axes for some solo speed climbing routes. Next: something I never come across in running lit is questioning the exponentially increasing diversity of specialized basic gear that becomes available. Shoes for every single type of surface (from slippery mud, to rocky trails, to snow, etc.), extremely light-weight clothes, bags, whatever, for the longer distances. There is a serious argument to make that money/sponsorship buys competitive advantage here. But as the sport near totally lives of the producers of this gear I guess it’s a no-go area. I put this property last, also because here our running space meets the death zone – where what Kilian Jornet is doing on mountains like Matterhorn or the Courmayeur-Chamonix traverse merges into what Ueli Steck is doing on more serious mountains, something he admits is dangerous, which again merges into zero-safety (free) soloing of rock climbers like Alex Honnold (see below – it also has an urban counterpart).

Obviously, I have gone beyond the conceptual universe of ‘running’ with my last examples, but I feel that one has to in order to really get the fuzziness of the running concept across. What Kilian Jornet does is still part of the running property space, what Ueli Steck does is climbing. In the urban setting I would argue that much of parkour, with its emphasis on fast and most efficient movement from A to B, is clearly within the running space. But when the emphasis moves away from efficiency toward self-expression through movement (which is the underlying philosophy of the parkour spin-off freerunning) one gets to the fuzzy edge. And one crosses over to dance, when efficiency is not a consideration any more, as in the B-boying-inspired movements in Daniel Cloud Campos first short film The Paperboy.

I do not immediately see other activities beyond climbing and dancing that similarly share grey areas of overlap with ‘running’, but maybe it makes sense to look at adventure racing from this perspective too. If so, I would suggest to use a yardstick like a minimum of 75% of the total needs to be ‘running’, less makes it adventure racing. The same yardstick is often used to define trail running (75+% on trails), and it also works to place other combination-disciplines, like triathlon, duathlon/aquathlon, and summer biathlon, outside the property space of running.

For me it doesn’t make much sense to separate walking and running. For several reasons. Lots of especially European mountain races require extensive stretches of (uphill) walking. No one objects against following a walk-run strategy in longer ultra’s. And although the modern sport of racewalking proscribes loss of contact (both feet off the ground) which is the flight fase of running, it shares a venerated history with running under the label of pedestrianism. Based on on all of the above, if I would have to come up with a definition of running, it wouldn’t go beyond something like more or less relentless efficient movement along a more or less defined route. I think Ras Vaughan has a point when he goes back to pedestrianism for that. It is a good term for all that is actually included within the conceptual space of ‘running’.  Another angle on this is to think in terms of approaching a course with a running mentality, which basically means opting for running whenever that is physically an option. But as power walking and running can be near equally efficient, with considerable individual differences in what suits a body best, it is unpredictable what this would mean in practice for different individuals. So again, better to not even try to separate out a ‘running’ enclave within the pedestrianism spectrum. 

A last perspective for now, is that one can make a good argument that there is running and running, and the two are really as different as ‘walking’ and running. The style required to run really fast (middle-distance) is a fundamentally different kinda running from what you need for longer ultras. And then I haven’t even mentioned sprints. So if lumping all of these in one category is no problem, why make a fuss about including other styles of motion?

For me, the above thinking exercise has delivered another insight. I now have more appreciation for the existing diversity within this universe of ‘running’ activities that so fascinates me. Until recently, I tended to focus on set-format constraints. But, when trying to match the most common kinds-of-running descriptors (mountain running, sky running, trailrunning, road racing, etc.) to configurations of properties of the conceptual universe of ‘running’/pedestrian activities, my pigeonholing exercise didn’t get very far. The descriptors all have fuzzy edges, overlapping each other. Some of these may be dealt with by introducing 75% kinda yardsticks, others don’t. Also, the various descriptors are mum about some of the properties, which means that activities/events that I would describe as substantially very different from each other are subsumed under one umbrella label. In general, each descriptor covers an often association-governed mainstream, but when one includes the outliers, the diversity increases a lot. Which is a good thing in my book: it indicates a freedom of spirit in the running community, an eagerness to explore.

This post is, in more than one way, just a starter. For one, going over this terrain more systematically will undoubtedly generate interesting ideas for relatively white areas on the map. Is nothing to be found there? Another is the exercise of looking at this whole pedestrian business through the lens of what is driving it. Sport immediately brings competition to mind, and lots of what is part of this conceptual universe is indeed competition-driven. But competition with whom, and on the basis of what? Competition is about comparing, and also about pushing boundaries. What (various) qualities are being explored (in different kinds of ‘running’)? Different explorations imply different property choices? And then, some of it at least, is not about competition at all, but what is it about then? So somewhere down the line, more is to come.

After an endless rumination like this I always feel like ending with something completely different, that nevertheless completely fits the frame. Why it does so is something I am reluctant to reflect on. Why distrust my gut? And even if you don’t see the connection, it shouldn’t make it any less enjoyable.

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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